25 October 2010

Don’t feed the BEAR

The Wall Street Journal has a nice article on moves made to increase transparency and accountability of universities.

It focuses on Texas, and starts with one of the most controversial acts so far. Texas A&M publicly posted a “cost / benefit” analysis of each department and faculty. The implication seemed to be, “Everyone should be pulling their own weight, and that means each professor should bring into the university more money than they cost.”

We’ve had similar documents internally at our institution for some time, and I imagine other universities do to. Ours is called the break even analysis report (BEAR). I came out fairly well in one of our last ones, because I teach introductory biology. Biology in general comes out well, because we have a lot of majors.

I don't like the attitudes I've seen such reports engender. They do not promote collegiality.

I don’t know that any business operates under a scheme where every item must be equally profitable. In every business, some items subsidize the rest. Not every movie in the theater recoups its costs. Not every TV show is a hit. Some things fly off the shelves, while others sit there unsold even when there’s no other choice.

Another potential problem with releasing such a report publicly is that it doesn’t emphasize variation over time. Just like a business, some times are profitable, and some are not. If one department is down a million dollars this year, it might be in the black by an equal amount the next.

The article also discusses other laws the Texas legislature (which is, you might recall, largely dominated by a party that advocates small government) has imposed on universities.

As someone working under these new laws, some of them are well intentioned but I’m not convinced they will help either students or taxpayers more generally. For instance, we now have to have a class syllabus up months before the start of classes. We have until next Monday to get ours up for the spring semester.

It's questionable how important students think a syllabus is. Put something up that far in advance often means that you can't put in very much detail. Because we're busy with the current semester, we don't have a heck of a lot of time to figure out what we're going to do next semester. So it encourages a minimal, generic syllabus.

Similarly, we now have to put up a curriculum vita. Again, I wonder what the average undergraduate, or their parents, for that matter, is going to get out of a listing of my publications. I have no problem with people knowing (it's all over my home page), but how does it help them? How does it help the typical student pick classes, or decide what university to attend, or any of the other routine decisions that they make?

Picture by jepoirrier on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.

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